Novels, moral and religion

The Italian social, cultural and religious context was of course very different than the English one. This difference played a big role in the process of reception of the novels. In February, for example, 1787 the Journal Encyclopédique published a very long review (eight pages) of the novel Maria, by Elizabeth Blower, in its French translation Maria, ou Lettres d’un gentilhomme anglais à une religieuse, traduit de l’anglois. The judgement is not positive, since from the very first paragraph we can read:


Si ce ouvrage est vraiment une production angloise, l’auteur n’as pas donné a son compatriote, M. Croli, le plus beau role à jouer.


[If this work is really an English production, the author did not give to his compatriot, Mr Croli, the best role to be played.]


The journalist then explains what the plot of the novel is, giving from time to time some personal remarks on the poor value of the story. Two months later, the Nuovo giornale enciclopedico publishes a much shorter review of the same novel, adapting the French content to the Italian readership. The judgement in this case is much sharper than the first one. The novel is defined as a ‘romanzetto di poco edificante condotta e di men lieto fine’ [a novelette of a poorly edifying conduct, with an even less happy ending], filled with characters whose behaviour is unworthy (‘indegnamente’), and whose brains deserve to be burnt (‘cervello ch’era degnissimo d’esser bruciato’). The Italian journalist goes deeper into the moral judgement of the novel: there is no such harshness in the French review, which indulges more on the contents and their weakness. This is made extremely clear by the conclusion of the review, which is the only part completely absent in the French, being an original section added by the Italian journalist:


Maria ha servito di titolo a varie produzioni Letterarie, e chi sa quanto dovrà servirne ancora; ma codesto romanzo non è degno di portare un così bel nome.


[The name of Maria has served as the title for several literary works produced, and who knows how many more it will serve; but this novel is not worth bearing such a beautiful name.]


Such a beautiful name as Maria should not belong to a licentious, negative character. The reference to the holy Mary appears rather clear: giving Her name to a totally unworthy woman is almost blasphemous. It is impossible to determine if the Italian reviewer actually read the novel, or if they simply adapted the information obtained from the French review. After all, it is probably not necessary to understand how the readership was influenced by the review: what is extremely important in this circumstance is to see how Catholic morality was playing a big role in the reception of the English novels. In this particular case, the grounding of ethics is conveyed, starting from a very simple fact, the name of the character, which gives the opportunity to point out how far from moral orthodoxy the novel’s contents were to be located. The example suggests that the questioning of social hierarchies in the English novel, its examination of moral ambiguity, its interplay of gender roles, and its scrutiny of the ethical, religious, and psychological foundations of social norms, are in fact more shocking to the Italian cultural milieu than, for example, the clichéd ‘moral looseness’ of French literature, whose dissemination had been structural in the construction of the 18th century social fabric. The controversial nature of English novels started a debate on their moral values, which in Italy was carried on under specific circumstances, i.e. the Catholic groundings of ethics and the predominance of Cartesian thought in philosophy of knowledge and psychology.

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